Don Drummond Was One of the Five Best Trombonists to Ever Play the Instrument

One comes away from Don Drummond with a clearer sense of who the man was and why he is considered by many to be the best musician so few people have ever heard of.

Don Drummond

Publisher: McFarland
Length: 244 pages
Author: Heather Augustyn
Price: $35.96
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-08

Check out this elevator pitch: Impoverished youth becomes a mostly self-taught musician. This reticent, eccentric musical genius scraps together an existence in an environment where squalor, violence and indifference are the default settings. A latent mental illness that may or may not be schizophrenia becomes increasingly manifest. Musician alienates potential allies and tends to squander some rare opportunities. Ultimately, he finds love with an adored and talented dancer, only to be accused of murdering her, with a knife. Musician, imprisoned and in despair, dies in a mental asylum, aged 35.

Sounds like the makings of a good movie, yes?

It could be. Maybe it should be. Bonus: it has the added import of being a true story. It is the story of Don Drummond’s life. Perhaps the name of the film would need to be “Who Was Don Drummond?”

So, who is Don Drummond?

He is recognized as one of the five best trombonists to ever play the instrument. Needless to say, most folks couldn’t name, or care less, whom the other four happen to be. The tragedy of his too-short life involves how little support and recognition he received in his lifetime. Already a niche figure in an increasingly forgotten genre (ska), the very real possibility that he could become a footnote or trivia question is unconscionable.

Enter Heather Augustyn, who has already demonstrated her expertise with the book Ska: An Oral History. Here, she sets out to pay tribute to and tell the story of a man many consider one of the most important and influential trombonists of any time, in any category.

As a cursory glance at the bibliography and/or index suggests, this book strives to be a definitive account and it succeeds. In truth, unless you are an obsessive fan (of Drummond, or ska), this might prove to be too much of a good thing. Augustyn cuts no corners and deserves praise for the exhaustive detail she provides. Using archival records, photos and dozens of interviews, she gives as good a sense of Drummond’s life and times as we are likely to ever get.

The tension that makes the book intriguing and, at times frustrating (and therefore, necessary) is how little anyone seems to have known or understood Drummond. A quiet boy born into abject poverty in Kingston, Jamaica, Drummond found salvation via music. Augustyn recounts Drummond’s time at the Alpha Boys School and the good fortune he had through his association with Sister Ignatius, who is described as “guide, teacher, mentor, (and) mother.” Ignatius emerges as the unsung hero who invested her time and indefatigable energy to countless young lads who otherwise might have been forgettable, and forgotten.

Drummond has received considerable praise from myriad sources and the opinion that he ranks amongst the top five trombonists puts him in exclusive company often reserved for jazz improvisers; a cursory list could also include Glenn Miller, Jimmy Knepper, Curtis Fuller, Jack Teagarden and, of course, J.J. Johnson. In 1956 jazz singer Sarah Vaughan visited the island and, after hearing Drummond play, claimed he was likely one of the five best trombonists in the world. Dave Brubeck allegedly stopped in mid-performance, astonished at Drummond’s improvisatory skills. Before long he became a regular at the legendary Studio One studios, working alongside Coxsone Dodd. Eventually he linked up with sax player and bandleader Tommy McCook, and the Skatalites went on to become the most respected band in Jamaica.

The future could, and maybe would have been limitless, but Drummond was plagued by chronic mental illness. While never properly (or at least adequately) diagnosed, theories range from major depression to schizophrenia. Even at his most productive, Drummond was a reserved, quiet figure; he lived for music and that functioned as solace and obsession. He inherited a reputation for being difficult to work with, not above sulking during studio sessions, but he was so revered for his ability all of these quirks were tolerated.

The theory that Augustyn explores is whether or not more recognition would have led to increased opportunity and, inevitably, money that could have made things different—and better. As such, his poverty and an increasing alienation left him less able to function. The money these musicians were cheated out of as a matter of course resurfaces as a very familiar, very disconcerting theme, and despite the minor miracles Coxsone Dodd helped create in Studio One, his dealings with the musicians leave much to lament. Even as the Skatalites earned accolades, Drummond seemed incapable of enjoying the success, or much of anything.

The other major event in his life occurs when he links up with the popular and beautiful Marguerita Mahfood, “rumba queen”. For some time they exist happily, and she seems to provide the support and love missing from Drummond’s life. Unfortunately, his mental difficulties never abate, and possibly (though not definitively) as a result of excessive marijuana intake, Drummond descends into a darker place. On the evening of 1 January 1965, neighbors hear a commotion followed by screams. When the police show up, Margarita is dead, having been stabbed multiple times in the chest. Drummond is arrested, tried, and sent to a mental asylum, where he would die before the end of the decade.

Anyone who wants to understand what Drummond was about is advised to listen to his music. Anyone who, understandably, hears that music and wants to gain a deeper appreciation of the man that made it, and the forces that made him, is advised to pick up this book. There are dozens of accolades offered from a variety of musicians and critics, and their consensus speaks volumes. To get a better understanding, on both musical and human levels, how Drummond came to master such a beautiful melancholy in his playing, Augustyn does considerable work to illustrate the ways his environment worked against him, and in some ironic ways, ensured that he developed the sensitive, mercurial sensibility that took his musicianship to another level, even as it ultimately contributed to his downfall.

For every year that passes in our increasingly digital world, we are inexorably one year farther away from the archaic analog reality. Among other things, this means we put more distance between the future and a past that has no chance to keep up, much less compete in an information overload present. Augustyn is to be celebrated for doing the old-fashioned, painstaking dirty work of research and reporting in the service of her subject. One comes away from this book with a clearer sense of who Don Drummond is and why he matters. Most of all, her work serves as a reminder that we owe it to our fragile geniuses to celebrate and commemorate their achievements with the dignity and respect they richly deserve.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

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The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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